From Nuweiba in the northeast to Lake Nasser in the far south, I spent over a month cycling through Egypt. In that time I experienced many different sides to this fascinating country, and at times struggled with mixed feelings. I was robbed three times in Egypt, and the third time was at gunpoint. Despite these incidents however I will leave Egypt with a fairly positive impression of Egyptians, who can take some getting used to but are almost always warm, friendly and generous people. Egypt is definitely a country worth visiting, filled as it is with spectacular ancient pyramids, temples and tombs, but because of safety concerns and the incredibly restrictive police I can’t say I’d recommend it as a cycling destination – at least not for the moment.
Entering the country in Sinai, I arrived in Nuweiba by ferry from Jordan and spent my first few days in Egypt relaxing on the beach and resting up after the tough physical challenge of riding the Jordan Trail. Nuweiba is a ghost town – stark evidence of just how hard the Egyptian tourist industry crashed in the years following the revolution of 2011. The Arab Spring and subsequent revolution coupled with heightened fears of terrorism kept the tourists away, and many beach destinations like Nuweiba were all but abandoned.
Today Nuweiba feels eerily quiet, with entire resorts completely deserted, roads unfinished and houses half built. It remains very beautiful though; the Red Sea boasts world class diving and the backdrop of the Sinai Mountains is stunning. I enjoyed my stay, though I was also robbed for the first time in over four years of travelling. Someone snuck into my hut during a brief period in which I was swimming in the sea, and emptied my wallet, though they did leave my bank card untouched, taking only cash. I was sorry to have lost the cash but relieved not to have lost anything more important, and I was also frustrated at myself for not having locked the door. But Nuweiba had seemed such a sleepy, laid back place that I hadn’t considered the risk of a 10 minute swim worth worrying about. It was a lesson that was to be driven home a number of times before I left the country.
Leaving Nuweiba I cycled from sea level up to around 900 metres and reached a police checkpoint at a crossroads. I wanted to turn right into the mountains towards St. Catherine and through towards the Suez Canal and Cairo. But the police were not on board with my plan and told me I would not be allowed to cycle through Sinai. For hours we talked, the argument going back and forth, with several long intervals for them to phone headquarters. But despite all my efforts they would not let me continue, and they also wouldn’t let me cycle anywhere else in Sinai. They wouldn’t even let me cycle the short distance back downhill into Nuweiba. Instead, I was forced to put my bike onto a police truck and then to take a separate bus onwards to Dahab, from where I would have to take an overnight bus to Cairo. They wouldn’t even let me ride in the same vehicle as my bicycle. Knowing what I know now, I should have insisted. It was the first of many frustrating battles I was to have with the police in Egypt.
The police were friendly but firm. This was all, ostensibly, for my safety. I have my doubts. Northern Sinai remains possibly dangerous, certainly, but the southern part where I wanted to cross has had no problems for years. All of the locals I spoke to said it was perfectly safe. Looking back now, who knows? But at the time I was intensely frustrated with the police. More so because when my bike turned up in Dahab the police had clearly rifled through my bags; my bottle cages were bent and I later discovered that a few small items were missing. Theft number two within a week in Egypt – it was not a good start.
I spent the following day diving in Dahab’s spectacular ‘Blue Hole’ and then took an overnight coach to Cairo. I was bitterly disappointed to be missing the ride through Sinai as it was an area I had been very much looking forward to exploring. I could have visited St. Catherine by bus but it would have been scant consolation and my experiences in Sinai had left me feeling resentful so I decided to press straight on for Cairo directly. And though I did not expect to like Cairo at all, over the course of a fortnight in the city I completely reversed the bad initial impressions I’d had of Egypt.
Cairo is a mad place. One of the most polluted cities in the world, it has an ever expanding population currently at almost 20 million. To put that into perspective, there are about the same number of people living in Cairo as in the whole of Sweden, Norway and Denmark combined. The noise, dust and traffic are intense, and it has to be said that Cairo is generally a pretty ugly city. People make the place though, and the many fun and fascinating people I met in Cairo made my stay a real pleasure. For the last few months riding through the Balkans and then the Middle East I’d been fighting a growing sense of road fatigue, and the time I spent in Cairo went a long way to refreshing me.
I did the tourist thing of visiting the pyramids at Giza, fulfilling a childhood dream and ticking off another major bucket list destination. Remarkable as they are, I was not blown away by the pyramids. I was impressed, but not awed, which drove home something I’ve known for a long time – I am far more enchanted by natural marvels than by man made ones. Seeing the pyramids was amazing, but I felt none of the spark that I feel from standing on top of a mountain or watching the sun rise over the ocean. That, I think, is why I appreciate travelling by bicycle – destinations become secondary to the spaces in between, those unnamed places bursting with natural beauty which you cannot get to except by finding yourself there. Everyone is drawn to different things, but for me at least ‘bucket list’ places like the pyramids, though still worth seeing, serve more as milestones than as major highlights. Travelling around the world on a bicycle is a slow business, and it is nice to be reminded that I am actually making progress.
My time in Cairo passed pleasantly. I took a bus up to Alexandria for a brief visit, explored Cairo and spent my evenings in cafes smoking shishe or playing dominos and backgammon with interesting people. A sandstorm hit the city and I had to cycle across town through the back end of it. I gave a talk at a running club to raise some money for Build Africa and sorted out the expensive $150 visa for Sudan. I ate good food, enjoyed good company and revelled in the enormous atmosphere and energy of the city.
Finally, I decided to hit the road, following the small roads south along the Nile Valley. Getting out of the enormous polluted orbit of Cairo was unpleasant, but finally I broke free and made it down to Djoser to visit the Step Pyramid, the oldest pyramid in the world, which dates back to 2600 B.C.
That night I struggled to find anywhere to camp. Egypt’s Nile Valley is incredibly densely populated – there are people absolutely everywhere and almost every available scrap of land is devoted to agriculture. And because the land is so flat, there is nowhere to hide. I decided to simply knock on someone’s door and ask permission to camp, something I’ve done throughout the world without a problem. The people I asked were predictably astonished at my arrival but were very friendly, and once they understood what I was asking they quickly agreed to let me camp. Unfortunately they also thought it prudent to ring up the police to let them know that I was there, and thirty minutes later a truck full of armed policemen turned up to ‘guard’ me through the night. An English speaking officer on the phone interrogated me for almost an hour, wanting to know every irrelevant detail of my travel history and plans. The officer made me feel almost like a criminal with endless penetrating questions, all whilst I was sitting in the dark around a small fire, surrounded by gun-wielding strangers. It was not a pleasant experience.
The officer wanted to know who I’d been staying with in Cairo, but I refused to give him any names as I felt like I might be in trouble and I didn’t want to drag any of my friends into it. The officer tried very hard to get names out of me, even trying to trick me into revealing them, but I kept refusing and eventually he relented. It was all rather unnerving and I was very disappointed that the police had been notified at all as I had been hoping to avoid them for as long as I could.
The Egyptian government is deeply paranoid about its tourist industry and terrified that something bad might happen to a foreign tourist, an event which could cause another massive slump in the economy. As a result, the Egyptian police are overprotective, in particular when it comes to foreigners travelling by bicycle. Because cyclists are uniquely vulnerable, any foreigners riding between Cairo (from around Beni Suef) and Luxor are subjected to compulsory police escorts the entire way through. They are forbidden to camp but forced to stay in hotels, and are also forced to stick to the main roads along which there are regular police stations. Some are forced onto buses, as I was in Sinai.
Riding through Egypt in this way; my head down on the highway with an impatient police escort close behind, had absolutely no appeal to me. Accordingly, my plan had been to try to avoid the police for as long as possible by staying clear of any major roads and sticking to the more remote dirt roads and tracks which I normally favour. But here I was; foiled on day one. At first, I was irritated with the locals for snitching on me, but I came to realise that they were simply worried that the police would find out sooner or later anyway and that they would get into trouble for not having called. At least the police brought dinner anyway, and eventually I was left to go to sleep in a dusty shed at the back of the garden.
The morning brought more stress. A different officer phoned and told me that I could not continue and would have to go back to Cairo. I flat out refused, and he insisted. We argued for twenty minutes before he heatedly said that it would be impossible for me to ride to Luxor without a ‘company’. I had no idea what a ‘company’ might be, but sensing an opening I told him I would ride on to Beni Suef, some 80 kilometres south, and find a ‘company’ before continuing. This seemed to mollify him (or at least he saw a way for me to become somebody else’s problem) and he finally agreed to let me go. I set off immediately, before he could change his mind. The police car followed me for five minutes to the next town and then left. I was free!
Hardly able to believe my luck I hastily got off the road and made for the smallest tracks I could find, giving Beni Suef a wide berth and bypassing any larger towns in a bid to avoid running into the police. And for three days my plan was successful! I never saw anything larger than a village and was able to completely avoid detection. Those were wonderful days. The Nile Valley is an beautiful place, and most of the time the only traffic I encountered was on four legs. Villages were spaced out regularly but I never lingered long. I was determined to avoid the police as I knew they would never let me ride these kinds of roads and wander this part of the country.
Agriculture was everywhere; the fields were thick with people working and the roads were busy with people moving crops, usually by donkey. Aside from the modern innovations and technologies which have altered their methods, farmers have lived and worked those fields in much the same way for thousands of years. Life felt very old in that part of the world and I felt very lucky to be there. You can always tell if you’re in an area where no tourists go because of people’s reactions. No recognition, just amazement. People stared at me in unabashed astonishment as I passed. Everyone was friendly. People often refused payment for food, and even when they didn’t falafel sandwiches were delicious and cost just 9 pence each. Nights were cold, with temperatures dropping close to freezing – even though I knew it was winter, it was not at all what I was expecting from Africa! Not wanting a repeat incident I never asked permission to camp but instead camped hidden away from the road under palm trees, not setting up my tent until after dark and packing up well before the dawn.
All the cloak and dagger was a little stressful but it gave me a bit of a thrill, and the sneaking around allowed me to see a side to Egypt that very few get to experience. It was not to last though, and late on the third day I was to be given a rude awakening. Held at gunpoint on a remote road with no hope of escape and surrounded by a dozen men, many with knives, I would have cause to reflect on my choices and my naivety. For as I was about to learn, the police in Egypt are overprotective for reasons not just limited to paranoia. The danger was real, and I was about to face it.